Vanessa Davis seems to have come out of nowhere this year with the Drawn and Quarterly publication of “Make Me a Woman,” a book that proved to be thoughtful, intimate and funny, meditative and beautiful in a way that only the best comics are. Davis’ first book “Spaniel Rage” was published by Buenaventura Press in 2005. She’s been drawing comics regularly for Tablet Magazine where many of the comics from her new book first appeared. The cartoonist has also appeared in “Kramer’s Ergot,” “The Best American Comics” and other anthologies and publications.
As if the publication of what has been deemed by numerous critics as one of the year’s best comics isn’t enough, Davis also recently guest drew a strip on Smith Magazine’s Pekar Project, contributed to Zack Zoto’s new anthology “Studygroup” and was part of the show “Graphic Details” at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, as part of a line up of artists which included Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins and more.
Davis spoke with CBR News during the course of her tour of the country, promoting the book.
CBR News: Vanessa, I’m curious, did you grow up reading comics and wanting to be a cartoonist or were your primary artistic influences elsewhere?
Vanessa Davis: I read some comics when I was younger – mostly Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes and Archie. But when I was in 7th grade, I entered an arts magnet school and stopped thinking about comics for a long time. I was really into 70s feminist sculptors and performance artists, like Laurie Anderson and Ana Mendieta. Then I got into painting and was obsessed with David Hockney and Alice Neel. Around that time, I got “Twisted Sisters 2” and a couple of “Dirty Plottes,” and I also discovered the work of Charlotte Salomon. I was really into it, but I tried to incorporate their influence into my painting rather than draw comics. It wasn’t until I was much older that it even occurred to me I could try drawing comics.
You mentioned “Dirty Plotte” as influencing you. A lot of people have spoken of Julie Doucet in that manner over the years, but what was it about her work that really spoke to you?
Part of it was that they were the first comics I looked at that weren’t for kids, right when I stopped being a real kid. I was around 13 or 15 or so when I saw them, and even though I was deep in art school and didn’t even let myself think about comics, these cartoonists drew like how I liked to draw, and the stories were intensely compelling. Between the mundane kinds of experiences, the sad or scary romances and the sexy art, I was gripped.
With Julie Doucet, she had such a dark sense of humor and she was so intense, but she seemed like she might be a little bit like me, even though I was just a schmoey teenager. She seemed really cool. I found the “Dirty Plottes” at the local independent record store. I loved how decorative and patterny her drawings were. A little later I read “My New York Diary,” and I think I could relate to her finding herself in bad situations.
One of the elements of your work that I really enjoy is your page compositions, because you don’t often think in panels and traditional comics layout. Is that the painter in you, or is there another reaosn you work like that?
When I did start drawing comics, I felt appalled by how organized one seemed to need to be. I think it was a combination and a paradoxical thing: I didn’t know enough about writing to plan everything out, but then also, probably the fine art training in me resisted against the idea of gridding out boxes and filling them in. Using a ruler was a totally wrongheaded way to approach drawing. I got really into the spontaneous and creative ways I could transition between scenes without panels and play with composition and layout. But now I like panels, too. I just think it’s important to make a deliberate decision, no matter what format choices I make.
What is it you enjoy so much about the short story format?
I get easily overwhelmed by thinking about how things are connected, and I babble and digress a lot, in life. One thing I’ve enjoyed in comics is my surprising brevity. Also, I think as an autobio cartoonist, it keeps things reasonable. I’ll want to do a story about a friend, but then it’ll be related to a boyfriend I had, and that will be related to my experience in therapy, and all of this has to do with my parents, or something. Before I know it, it becomes this grandiose [project]! I’m only 32 years old, and I’ve got other stuff to talk about! I think, [the idea of] writing a long, uninterrupted story like that goes against all of the advice I’ve gotten my whole life to keep it short. That sounds negative, but I think I like to write in a similar way to how I would tell a story at a party. Not that I just want to write “dining out” stories – they can be important or dramatic, but succinct. I like that thing that happens in between short stories, the brain makes connections, in probably a more sophisticated way than I could construct on purpose.
So, do you have any interest in creating a longer form work?
Maybe one day. Yeah, not crazy long, probably, but longer. My longest story now is like 9 pages, so it won’t be hard to go a little longer.
Shifting gears, how did your relationship with “Tablet” magazine start?
The old art editor of “Tablet” became aware of “Spaniel Rage” and my work from a colleague, and I started doing illustrations for them. After doing them pretty regularly, they had an idea for a Purim-themed comic, so they commissioned me. They really liked it, and we talked about doing a more regular comic. Which was amazing! It was the best job I have ever had.
What is it about autobiographical stories that interest you and that you feel is a form that speaks to you? Are there any cartoonists in this vein who really influenced your work?
As I mentioned before, as a painter I was always interested in autobiography, but I never thought about it in those terms. I liked how certain artists recorded daily life, as I was fascinated by other peoples’ lives and recording and remembering my own as it was happening. My exposure to autobio cartoonists during this time I’m sure only contributed to these inclinations. The fact that autobiography or “confessional comics” already had a long legacy and [were] building momentum in the world of comics was something that didn’t occur to me whatsoever when I began drawing comics. But once I did start, I remembered how much Debbie Drechsler, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Julie Doucet affected me in the past. And in my present, I was discovering the work of all of these other cartoonists, like Gabrielle Bell, and Ron Rege, Harvey Pekar and a million more who were validating and inspiring me, telling me there was a real place for the type of work I did with their own.
The process of making an autobiographical comic is, I’m sure, agonizing, like any creative endeavor, but is there anything cathartic about the end result?
Not really! I mean, the agony or the ecstasy of any old story is long relieved by time. Add all of the crafting and work you lay on it and it becomes this thing you don’t even feel or see anymore. This is coming out bad, but basically, there is a feeling of dissociation that I often feel. It does feel good, though, to hear from readers that have shared the same experiences or ideas. Then there’s just a pleasant feeling, but it’s not exactly cathartic. Diary writing or screaming is cathartic! Maybe I’m doing it wrong!
Your previous book was published by Buenaventura about five years ago. How did you end up at Drawn and Quarterly with “Make Me a Woman?”
Right after I started working with Buenaventura, Tom Devlin approached me about doing something for Highwater, which had been one of my favorite comics publishers at that point (besides D+Q). I was excited about working with Alvin, who at that point hadn’t yet published anything, but had worked on prints with a lot of great cartoonists, and we’d already gotten started. Then Highwater closed up, and Tom Devlin moved to D+Q. Alvin wanted me to put out a second “Spaniel Rage” shortly after the first one, but changed his mind and told me he didn’t want to do another diary comics book. I was still working in this format at the time. Chris Oliveros and Tom, now at D+Q, said they’d like to publish something by me. At that point, I did get more interested in color work, as I had been really excited by the pieces I’d done for “Kramers Ergot,” so I decided to put together some short stories for D+Q.
The title, “Make Me a Woman,” is also the title of one of the stories. Did this theme occur to you at some point during the creation process or not until you were assembling the book?
It didn’t occur to me until we were putting it together. I’d wanted to call the book “Happy Chappie.” Tom suggested “Make Me a Woman,” and even though I’d used it for a strip, the idea of using it for my book freaked me out. But then I realized it was the only title.
You tell the story of your bat mitzvah, but otherwise, many of the milestones that are supposed to mark the end of childhood/beginning of adulthood are largely ignored in your stories. Was that because such events and their treatment have become cliche or were you trying to play with the idea of how we think of such progress?
I’m not sure how it came to be that I did that bat mitzvah strip – it was for “Arthur” magazine and Tom Devlin was my editor on that, too. I think I’ve always been more interested in the spontaneous, unplannable drama or potent moments in everyday life. A lot of my milestones haven’t been that memorable, but things that happen afterward make more of an impression. Like, my first kiss was kind of “eh,” but I could probably come up with a great story with the kisses that came after. Even with my bat mitzvah story – that was about the culture of bar mitzvahs that I got swept up in for a few years, when everyone I knew was having one, more than just about the single day upon which mine took place.
Having gone through the book, I can’t help but think the cover really sums up and gives a sense of it’s contents, but I’m curious why you picked that paricular image and what it is you feel works about it?
When I thought my book was going to be called “Happy Chappie,” which I did for about 3 years before it came out, I’d also had the cover planned out. I wanted to do a wrap-around cartoony self-portrait in a goofy chin-on-fist, lying-on-side pose. When I’d realized that “Make Me a Woman” was the title, I had to think about resolving my ideas about the book. I had thought that the point of “Happy Chappie” was the toggling between being happy and sad, that I do in my life and in my stories. But now I thought about daily life, femininity, places I felt myself thinking about life, etc
I did one cover of me in the ocean, but it didn’t come out that great. I liked the back cover, of me in the pool, because in my mind it takes place at the pool where my mom lives, in Florida. And the front cover, it sort of shows the act of maintenance, an attempt at personal upkeep, but in a way that is both perfectly dignified but also not inhuman. Like, I’m not at a salon having someone else do my nails, I’m in the bathroom and there’s toilet paper on the floor. But I’m just painting my nails, like a lot of people do. I think in life we attempt at personal upkeep, not just superficially and hygienically, but also mentally, spiritually, socially. I realized that that is a big theme in a lot of the stories in the book.
The book debuted at San Diego, and you’ve been on tour promoting it around the country. What has the experience been like, meeting fans, getting feedback and seeing people’s responses to your work?
It’s been amazing! It sort of has felt like a traveling wedding, seeing so many family and friends. Meeting new people who are into the book is a really humbling, exciting experience. I don’t know, – I’ve been freaked out, but in a good way!
Do you think that you have different interactions with your fans and readers because of the nature of your stories that those creators who work in fiction? Do you have this sense that readers feel like they know you just from knowing your work?
If anything, it feels mutual. Usually if people like the stories it’s because they connect with it, and that just reminds me that we all go through a lot of the same stuff. Obviously I love it when people tell me they love the art, but I feel most successful when people tell me they had the same thoughts or have gone through the same things or relationships that I wrote about in the book.
You drew one of the recent Pekar Project stories, “Jewish Chops.” How did you end up drawing a guest strip for thee online anthology, and, I know that you touched on this in the strip you did for Tablet, but how much of an influence was Pekar and “American Splendor” on your work?
Jeff Newelt, who edited the Pekar Project, suggested me as a guest artist, Obviously, I was incredibly honored and excited to do it. As I mentioned in my “Tablet” strip, I was pretty befuddled and amazed by “American Splendor.” The only autobio stuff I’d seen was “Twisted Sisters” and Julie Doucet, and those were all pretty dazzling and dramatic in their own ways. I know at this point it sounds like a cliche, but Pekar really did inspire me to think that any tone, any topic was okay for comics, [that] you could be yourself and still connect with people.
What are you working on next?
More stories! There’s so much I want to do, I don’t even know where to begin. Little by little, though, I’ll get it done!